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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Vignettes from investigative reporting in the 1950s

Seigenthaler discusses his work at <cite>The Tennessean</cite> of Nashville during the 1950s. First hired in 1949, Seigenthaler became an investigative reporter at <cite>The Tennessean</cite>, which he argues exercised more freedom than other newspapers in the South during the McCarthy era. To illustrate his point, Seigenthaler offers two detailed anecdotes regarding instances of investigative reporting that he was especially proud of. The first dealt with voter fraud in a rural county in the Appalachian mountains and the second involved the murder of an African American man by a white cab driver in Camden, Tennessee. In recalling these two episodes, Seigenthaler emphasizes his adherence to progressive politics and his desire to use journalism for purposes of social justice.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I think that early in the 50's, there was a little more freedom on the Tennessean than there probably was anywhere else around.
BILL FINGER:
Around the state, or around the South?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Around the South. Ralph McGill in Atlanta was a magnet down there. You went in there with almost no opportunity to do anything except be a protege and admirer and a defender of McGill. Gene Patterson was in his shadow. And The Constitution was great in those days because of them. But I would put the freedom allowed reporters on the Tennessean. Today I think it probably exceeds that against any paper in the country. I hope it does. Maybe the Globe in Boston would be an exception. I went through an awful lot of shit from time to time as a reporter. I thought that with all its freedom they were too restrictive on some matters.
JIM TRAMEL:
In the 50's you thought this?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
When I began to want to move into areas of investigative reporting, I thought that there were some restrictions. I wouldn't bump into it but once in a while, but when I would bump into it, when I would rub up against it, you know. I would be crushed about it.
BILL FINGER:
What kinds of areas?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Well, I remember one in particular in about 1959. A place called Clay County, a rural county on the edge of Appalachia: a poor county. The county courthouse smells like a French pissoir: it reeks of urine, you know. And a man came into see me and said, "There's a vote fraud up there." I went up, spent literally a month getting affidavits documenting the fraud and came back. We sat in this office, right here. The editor by that time was Ed Ball. He (Note: This page has been retyped because of extensive editing on the original. Portions of the original transcript have been deleted from this page.) was here with our lawyer. I spelled it out, showed them the affidavits and the lawyers didn't want to run it. I don't know why they were afraid of it. But they didn't want to run it. The editor said: "There is enough going on right here in Nashville without going to Clay County." And I got furious about it, I walked out of here saying, "That ought not to ever happen to anybody." I brooded about it three or four days and that fellow who was just here [John J. Hooker, Jr.] was a young practicing lawyer then. I went up to see him. And I said, "Look, there's a hell of a lawsuit to be filed." "What?" I spelled it out and he said, "Well, I can't go to them (the people whose affidavits I had taken), but if they come to me, I'll be glad to discuss it with them." So, I got the people who had given me affidavits and brought them in, and they talked to Hooker. He filed a lawsuit for them. The next day, the chairman of the election commission resigned, Frank Thurman, was his name. I never really understood why the paper didn't want to get into that. I had about three or four experiences like that. They were really debilitating to me. I got upset about it. I made up my mind that I would never make any reporter put up with that if I had anything to say about it.
BILL FINGER:
Were any of those examples beyond electoral politics? Anything about the McCarthy era or crackdowns on unions? (Note: This page has been retyped because of extensive editing on the original. Portions of the original transcript have been deleted from this page.)
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
No, it was a liberal newspaper I honestly think that they were nervous about libel in this case. Frank Thurman was the chairman of that commission, a man who had some prestige up there, fully capable of suing you, you know. I think they were nervous that I was dealing with panhandlers and people on welfare; they were worried that they would get hit by a lawsuit. That's what I think.
BILL FINGER:
I mean, your own interest as an investigative reporter at that time, did it go beyond electoral . . .
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Sure. The piece of investigative journalism that I am most proud of, in looking back on it involved a murder case. We've got a reporter around here named Nat Caldwell, who is good. He has been around forever. Nat Caldwell was a veteran. Some black people came to see him. They told him that a man had been murdered in Camdem, Tennessee. They said this fellow had been murdered over an eight dollar cab fare. I went down there and spent about a month, lived in the black community. It turned out that this cab driver was white. He stabbed this black man, a saw mill worker, for an eight-dollar cab bill. He had thrown the knife away. They had arrested him that night; charged him with murder. That was on a Sunday. The next day, the grand jury met and returned a no true bill. When I got into it, I found that his father-in-law was on the grand jury. I reported the full back-ground of the story. They indicted him. I couldn't go back to the trial because I was getting threats from whites. Nat Caldwell and Gene Graham went back to the trial. The jury conficted him of manslaughter.
JIM TRAMEL:
Is that the one that you are most proud of?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah. It was really the first time that I felt like I had a scalp on my belt. I always thought that it was worthwhile. Here was the black man. He had been dead for a month. The murder had been hushed up in the community. Nobody gave a damn. I went in there and lived for a month and I really came to identify with the mother of the victim. I didn't like anybody associated with the other side, I was an advocate from the first week. I knew that he had been murdered and that the town had covered it up. And so, I went into it. In that case, when I came back and talked to Coleman Hartwell, who was them the editor, he was super on it. Now, in the McCarthy era, I was very much interested in the Highlander Folk School fight, which was really peripheral . . . you know, in terms of McCarthyism. It was a local issue. "Myles Horton is a Communist," it was said. I used to go up there (to Highlander) periodically and just sit around and look. I was too young, really, to understand why I liked it, but it was a good place to be and they were good people to know. I think that I met Jim Dombrowski up there and that's the first time that I really understood what an agnostic was.